Buy or Sell Latest NBA Rumors: Is James Harden a Flight Risk for Nets?

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Buy or Sell Latest NBA Rumors: Is James Harden a Flight Risk for Nets?
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Dan Favale@@danfavaleTwitter LogoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2022

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    Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

    Another day, another batch of NBA rumors that adds an umpteenth wrinkle to the Ben Simmons trade sweepstakes—or, perhaps, lack thereof.

    Sources told The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Sam Amick that suitors talking shop with the Philadelphia 76ers think team president Daryl Morey “has his sights set on a bigger target in the summertime: Brooklyn Nets star James Harden.” This comes on the heels of nba reporter Marc Stein noting last week that Philly could hold on to Simmons past the deadline amid “noise circulating leaguewide about Harden’s reported openness to relocation this summer.”

    But wait: It gets better. Or worse. It depends on which team owns your allegiances.

    The Sixers’ interest in exploring the Harden scenario is so intense that, according to Charania and Amick, they’re willing to keep Simmons and the empty $33 million roster spot he amounts to rather than risk compromising potential superstar trade packages over the offseason.

    Should the Nets really be concerned about Harden spurning them for Philly? Does it make sense for the Sixers to place so much stock in Simmons hypotheticals not guaranteed to be available to them? Are the Charlotte Hornets a dark-horse suitor? Let’s tackle this ongoing, unremitting ordeal from every angle using our trusty ol’ buy-or-sell meter.

    And that’s not at all. Other scuttlebutt demands our attention, as well—including juicy, cooked-to-perfection tidbits on the Los Angeles Lakers and Russell Westbrook, Golden State Warriors, Eric Gordon and more.

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    Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    Philadelphia’s lust for James Harden shouldn’t leave the Nets quaking—not on the surface anyway. He turned down an extension prior to the start of this season, but that was more of a bookkeeping move. He guarantees himself more money over a longer term and can become the nba’s first $60 million man by signing a deal over the summer.

    Still, Harden’s player option arms him with plenty of leverage. The Nets mortgaged their entire future to get him. Losing him for nothing would be catastrophic and can’t be considered a viable outcome.

    Sure, Brooklyn could try calling his bluff. Fewer than a half-dozen teams are expected to have $20 million-plus in cap space this summer, and none of them profile as genuine Harden destinations. He isn’t relocating without the Nets’ help.

    Forcing him to stay, insofar as that’s on the table, still isn’t a realistic course. Teams tend to acquiesce when megastars want out, and Brooklyn could do much worse than turn a player looking to leave into a defensive dynamo in his mid-20s under contract for another three years.

    But this begs the question: Why would Harden want to leave the Nets? Though the Sixers made his wish list when he was in Houston, he ended up choosing Brooklyn over Philadelphia, according to Amick and Charania.

    That absolutely matters. It also isn’t everything. Harden is now in Year 2ish of watching Kevin Durant miss extensive time, and Kyrie Irving‘s unvaccinated status and impending free agency (player option) complicate the tenability of Brooklyn’s Big Three.

    Maybe he prefers Joel Embiid’s durability question marks to the ambiguity of his current situation. Or maybe he just misses Daryl Morey. Or perhaps he likes the idea of forming a two-star tandem that won’t require as much functional toggling as Brooklyn’s three-star model. Whatever his possible reasoning, the amount of traction behind this scenario renders it impossible to ignore.

    Verdict: Buy the Harden-Sixers connection.

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    David Dow/Getty Images

    Talks between the Sixers and other parties interested in Ben Simmons have not ceased despite Philly’s connection to James Harden. As Charania and Amick noted, the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings remain in hot pursuit, and the Sixers have previously “discussed deals around players like [De’Aaron] Fox, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.”

    Walking away from any of these primary returns in hopes of Harden joining the fold would take an iron stomach. The Sabonis fit is wonky—and, if we’re being honest, doesn’t make sense for anyone—but they all provide the Sixers with fringe star-and-better help in advance of the postseason, at a time when Joel Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career.

    Opponents of Philly’s strategy (and recycled Simmons rumors) will harp on the urgency of the team’s window. Embiid’s prime is happening now, and longevity cannot be assumed given his injury history. The Harden acquisition also stands to be messy. As Bryan Toporek expertly outlined for Forbes, the Sixers can sign-and-trade for him while staying under the hard cap without needing to offload Tobias Harris, but the math is tight and essentially erases the flexibility to do, like, literally anything else unless Harden opts in and delays his extension.

    Potentially unpopular opinion: The Sixers can’t afford to care.

    Simmons represents their best crack at landing a legitimate co-star for Embiid, someone who nudges their championship needle as convincingly as Jimmy Butler once did. Punting on a year of Embiid’s prime will sting. Jeopardizing the next three-plus years of it by settling on a sub-ideal return for your best trade asset stands to be even worse.

    The Sixers also aren’t Harden-or-bust if they keep Simmons past the deadline. They’re hedging against someone who isn’t available now becoming available over the offseason. Waiting on Harden, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard or superstar-yet-to-be named isn’t foolproof, but it’s significantly different than rolling the dice on Harden alone.

    Reasonable minds can disagree. Certain returns on Simmons shouldn’t ruin the Sixers’ chances of trading for a better star later. Offers featuring Fox-and-stuff specifically should hold comparable, if not more tantalizing, appeal. The Sixers are still smart to remain ultraselective, if only because there isn’t a single prospective package that should vanish from view over the offseason.

    Verdict: Buy the Sixers holding out for a proven star in Simmons talks.

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Sources told Charania and Amick the Hornets are “among new teams placing a [Ben] Simmons inquiry” while noting “nothing substantive” has materialized between the two sides. This sounds about right on both ends of the spectrum.

    Adding Simmons would be an intriguing yet puzzling play by the Hornets. On the one hand, why acquire someone who will take touches away from LaMelo Ball? On the other hand, why not land one of the nba’s top defenders and passers who is also wired to soup up an offense that already ranks second in average possession time, per Inpredictable.

    Playing “should they or shouldn’t they?” with Charlotte ultimately isn’t worth the brainpower. (Also of note: The team ranks second in points allowed per 100 possessions over the past month.) The Hornets don’t have the ready-made Simmons package to engage the Sixers if the latter is hell-bent on bagging an entrenched or on-the-rise star. They aren’t dealing LaMelo and the earliest they can convey a first-round pick is in 2023…if they’re lucky.

    Some combination of Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington should pique Philly’s attention. Charlotte can also finagle ways to take on the balance of Tobias Harris’ contract (two years, $79.6 million). But its best package doesn’t satisfy the Sixers’ current demands or properly set them up for another star trade.

    Verdict: Sell Charlotte as a potential Simmons destination.

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    Logan Riely/Getty Images

    In a follow-up to his report from last week, Stein adds that the Houston Rockets would intend to buy out Russell Westbrook if the Lakers sent them a first-round pick to take on his contract. Yeesh.

    Brokering a buyout with someone owed $47.1 million next season (player option) is all sorts of complicated. Westbrook would likely give back a nice chunk of change for the freedom to join a better team, but how much? And would the Rockets waive-and-stretch the final year of his deal across three seasons? Or would they just take the massive one-time hit and move on?

    Don’t bother overthinking the latter steps in a Westbrook-to-Houston scenario. Any deal between the Lakers and Rockets is beyond unlikely if it requires Los Angeles to fork over a 2027 or 2028 first-round pick.

    Shipping out that draft selection is a huge risk regardless of the context. It is an even more gargantuan one when the Lakers aren’t unloading it to actively deepen their team. A healthy John Wall is more of an off-ball threat than Westbrook and probably doesn’t come with as much playing-time politics, but he’s neither an unequivocal on-court or trade-asset upgrade.

    Expect the Lakers to do something at the deadline, mostly because they desperately need to do something. But chances are that something won’t be seismic. And if by some miraculous stroke of fate it is, this something certainly won’t include using their best and probably last trade chip to grease the wheels of a Westbrook trade that doesn’t measurably improve their title odds.

    Verdict: Sell the Lakers trading Westbrook to Houston—or anywhere else.

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    The Jazz’s search for a wing to bolster their playoff defense rages on, and it has led them to both Robert Covington and Jerami Grant, according to Stein.

    Go ahead and forget about Utah landing Grant. He is its “most preferred target,” per Stein, but the team doesn’t have any blue-chip prospects to dangle and cannot convey a first-round pick before 2026. The Detroit Pistons will have better offers.

    Covington is far more realistic. The Portland Trail Blazers may opt out of sending him to a conference rival, but this presumes they have anything special to play for this season. They don’t. And while they’re under no obligation to hold a fire sale, it behooves them to shop soon-to-be-free agents like Covington and Jusuf Nurkic.

    Adding Covington doesn’t fix what stands to ail the Jazz’s postseason defense. Royce O’Neale will remain saddled with the toughest assignments, and there will be games in which RoCo doesn’t crack the closing lineup.

    None of this is a deal-breaker. Covington is a noticeable mobility upgrade from Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic, and Utah can count on him for reliable help around the basket when Rudy Gobert is forced to challenge plays outside the paint.

    Opportunity cost is more of an issue than fit. The Jazz have matching salary in Ingles’ expiring and Jordan Clarkson, but the Blazers don’t have a long-term need for either player.

    Portland may not care if Utah is sending back a 2026 first, but that’s a steep price to pay for someone who doesn’t register as a quintessential solution and might leave over the summer. Offers from other suitors may invariably determine whether the Jazz are a realistic candidate to land Covington.

    Verdict: Buy Utah’s interest in Grant and Covington. Sell their ability to acquire Grant. Buy Covington as a realistic target.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Eric Gordon remains one of the hottest trade targets ahead of the Feb. 10 deadline. Houston has so far “received a number of offers” for his services, according to The Athletic’s Kelly Iko.

    And said no to them all.

    The Rockets could merely be playing hardball. This year’s market has a dearth of sellers, giving them every reason to leverage the many, many buyers against one another before accepting the best package available to them at the deadline.

    And yet, it doesn’t sound like they’re married to the idea of moving Gordon. As Iko wrote: “Barring an offer that simply can’t be ignored, it’s becoming more likely that Gordon remains in Houston past the deadline. There is a good deal of internal admiration for how Gordon carries himself on and off the floor and the work ethic he shows on a daily basis, characteristics the staff is trying to impart on some of their younger players.”

    This could still be posturing. Gordon isn’t hurting the Rockets’ draft stock with his absurd offensive efficiency—career-best 62.0 effective field-goal percentage—but a 33-year-old swingman clearly doesn’t fit into their plans, and there’s no guarantee his value will be as high over the offseason. For all he’s doing this season, Gordon will still be going on 34 with a history of health issues entering next year, and his $19.6 million salary isn’t exactly an afterthought investment.

    Make no mistake: Houston won’t have a problem rerouting him over the summer. Right now, though, the Rockets stand to acquire actual value for Gordon without swallowing unwanted money in the process. That may not be the case over the offseason.

    Verdict: Sell the Rockets keeping Gordon past the deadline.

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Much like Eric Gordon, Christian Wood is only up for grabs in the right deal, per Iko. This is a non-surprise. That’s how trades work.

    The Miami Heat emerging as “one of the more persistent teams in engaging with Houston,” according to Iko? Now that’s a surprise.

    Imagining a frontcourt that features both Wood and Bam Adebayo, playing together and independent of one another, is patently terrifying. The Heat are already making their case as the East’s second-most dangerous contender, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks, and yes, in front of the Nets. Adding Wood’s dynamic offensive portfolio to their megadeep rotation arguably puts them over the top.

    That sinking feeling now coursing through your body is reality settling in.

    Miami doesn’t have much to offer Houston. Tyler Herro isn’t worth giving up for another big, if at all, and the Heat don’t have ready-made matching money to send back. Duncan Robinson’s $15.7 million salary is the only option unless, for some unknown reason, the Rockets want to reacquire the almost 37-year-old P.J. Tucker.

    Fleshing out this framework is difficult. Miami can include a 2025 first-round pick but doesn’t have an appealing rookie-scale player aside from Herro to offer on top of that. Is team president Pat Riley anti-future enough to also dangle a 2027 first? Do distant picks hold that much value to a Rockets organization rebuilding now? And would they view Duncan Robinson as purely a $90 million Garrison Mathews?

    Verdict: Sell Miami having the assets to acquire Wood. Buy Houston making Wood available.

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    With no timetable set for James Wiseman’s return from a torn right meniscus, you might think Draymond Green’s calf and back issues would have the Warriors scouring the trade market for front-line depth. Well, they’re not.

    Sources told The Athletic’s Anthony Slater that the “front office doesn’t have any current plans to add outside help to shore up the center spot in the immediate.” This makes sense. And it may not be by choice.

    Golden State isn’t built to pull off any smaller trades. Only one of its four highest-paid players is reasonably available, in Andrew Wiggins, and he’s not getting moved outside of a star acquisition. Wiseman and rookie Jonathan Kuminga represent the Warriors’ fifth- and sixth-largest salaries, respectively. They aren’t getting shipped out in a non-blockbuster, either.

    Kevon Looney is next up—and isn’t worth shopping for another big. He has appeared in every game this season and makes just $5.2 million, and jettisoning one center for another does little, if anything, to bolster the big-man rotation.

    That brings us to Jordan Poole and Moses Moody, the No. 14 pick in the 2021 draft. They, too, should be considered off-limits in non-blockbusters. From there, Golden State has only minimum salaries that belong to players who almost universally provide more bang for their buck (Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Damion Lee, Andre Iguodala, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Nemanja Bjelica).

    Perhaps the Warriors change their tune once the buyout market takes shape. But even that rests on their creating a roster spot, and there is no obvious candidate to ditch. (Bjelica?)

    Verdict: Buy the Warriors standing pat at the trade deadline.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Monday’s games. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the nba for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by nba Math’s Adam Fromal.

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